TOKYO (Reuters) - In ageing Japan, retailers are waking up to a hot new demographic: foreign visitors.
Driven by government tourism promotions and lately a weaker yen, the number of inbound travelers has quietly doubled in the past decade to top 10 million for the first time last year. In 2013, they spent $14 billion on everything from powdered green tea to Prada handbags, to rare, red-coral rings.
With a doubling to 20 million visitors targeted by 2020, the year of the Tokyo Olympics, the growing flow of cash is welcome for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as he seeks to nurse a recovery in consumer spending through a national sales tax hike. It's also sending retailers scrambling to tap into the so-called "inbounds" windfall through marketing channels from social media to street signage.
"Until now, we've been rather passive with 'inbounds'," said Hideyuki Murakami, executive officer of department store operator Isetan Mitsukoshi Ltd (3099.T). "But as their numbers surge, we'll need to really step things up - whether it's with language, facilities or product selection."
Japan's department stores association on Tuesday said duty-free spending at 46 stores across the country spiked 54 percent in April to 6.09 billion yen ($60 million) compared with the same month a year ago, while overall sales at 241 department stores nationwide slipped 12 percent to 417.2 billion yen. Visitors have surged particularly from Thailand, which along with Malaysia received visa exemptions for short-term stays last July.
Many spend freely on their trips. Yijia, a 16-year-old from Shanghai who asked to be identified only by her first name, showed off a 90,000 yen ($890) haul from Mitsukoshi's swank Ginza store that included a pair of Kenzo designer shoes.
"I love coming to Japan to eat and shop," said the high school student, on her third visit to Japan with her mother. "Everyone loves the food in Tokyo, including French cuisine."
The 1.42 trillion yen ($14 billion) spent by "in-bounds" was up more than a third from 2012, according to the Japan Tourism Agency. That's less than half a percent of Japan's total private consumption, yet it still offers retailers welcome relief from the hangover of the April sales tax increase to 8 percent from 5 percent, now discouraging local shoppers.
Japan's visitor numbers are dwarfed by the 83 million travelers that made France the world's most popular tourist destination in 2012, the last year for which the United Nations World Tourism Organization has published estimates. Ranked 33rd by visitor numbers, Japan trailed Asia tourism destinations like Hong Kong, Macau and South Korea.
Yet their contribution to the economy will take on increasing importance as Japan's population dwindles - estimates suggest as Japan gets older its population will decrease by 10 million people by 2030. By then, the government hopes that further visa liberalization and a possible legalization of casino gambling will bring in 30 million visitors.
Competition to reel in tourists and business travelers is set to heat up as retailers beef up marketing efforts through social networking sites, magazine ads and plain, old-fashioned street signs.
Back-lit adverts in English leading to the swish Matsuya Co (8237.T) department store in Tokyo's storied Ginza shopping district tout its full 8 percent refund policy on duty-free purchases - against 6.9 percent for cross-street rival Mitsukoshi, as well as Takashimaya Co (8233.T) and many others.
Scores of Thai tourists line up on the first of every month before doors open at Matsuya's Ginza store, making a beeline for Bao Bao bags by designer Issey Miyake that retail for hundreds of dollars and are a hit back home, said general manager, Takehiko Furuya. "Somehow they've figured out that that's when the shipments come in," he said.
Isetan Mitsukoshi, formed from the merger of the Isetan and Mitsukoshi store chains, last month set up a division specifically charged with capturing in-bound customers. President Hiroshi Onishi said he eventually envisaged an entire floor at the historic Mitsukoshi Ginza store dedicated to foreigners, who he said could account for a tenth of overall sales this year - double the ratio last year.
The expansion of duty-free status to consumer products like cosmetics and food on October 1 may be a boon for lower-end retailers like discount megastore operator Don Quijote (7532.T). Known to millions in Japan as 'Donki', the company's 255 crowded outlets are packed with everything from green tea-flavored chocolates and cosmetics to Rolex watches. Its flagship store in the Dotonbori strip of Osaka gets close to half of its sales from duty-free shoppers.
Cut-price electronics store operator Bic Camera Inc (3048.T) is also looking to get a leg-up on rivals by tying up with Tokyo Metro to offer an extra 8 percent discount on most items at five stores in the capital for visitors who purchase the subway operator's all-day pass. That translates to a $400 saving, for instance, on a $5,000 single-lens reflex camera - popular among Chinese and Vietnamese tourists, who along with Russians spend the most per person on shopping in Japan, according to the national tourism agency.
Though the weaker yen and its attractions appear set to drive Japan's popularity as a destination, its ambition of moving up in the world rankings for inbound visitors has not been without hiccups beyond local retailers' control.
Visitors from mainland China, by far the top spenders per head, fell 7.8 percent last year after Japan's dispute with China over islands they both claim ignited anti-Japanese sentiment.
South Koreans were scared away towards the year-end by media reports highlighting radiation fears left over from the March 2011 nuclear disaster, which in turn caused a big drop in overall visitors that year.
"If you look at what's happening now with Vietnam and China, things can take a turn overnight," said Mitsukoshi Ginza's Murakami, referring to the anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam this month, also over territorial issues.
"But if you take a really long view, 'inbounds' offer the biggest hope to fill the hole of Japan's shrinking population." ($1 = 101.1700 Japanese Yen)
Reporting by Chang-Ran Kim and Ritsuko Shimuzu; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell